LAKE CITY—Just hours before a historic vote to change this town’s name for the second time in less than a century, Lake City Mayor Tim Sharp received a legal letter warning him that a proposal to build a Rocky Top theme park here could violate trademark rights and should be dropped.
But project supporters packed City Hall on Thursday, and the Lake City Council pressed on, voting 4-0 to recommend changing the name of this former coal mining town to Rocky Top. It’s the first step in a project to build a multi-million dollar theme park that could include an interactive Knotty Pine 3-D theater, water park, hotel, and restaurant.
The last-minute letter from an intellectual property attorney in Nashville could have Lake City officials and the park’s investors scrambling to answer legal questions. The notice was “very unexpected,” Sharp said.
“It throws a monkey wrench in it, slows it down,” he said after Thursday’s five-minute meeting, which didn’t include public debate. “It could be a little bit of a bumpy road.”
Still, Sharp remained optimistic that the project could proceed.
The name change still has to be considered by the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville. Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, attended the Lake City meeting and said he has drafted a bill that could be introduced during the legislative session that starts in January. If the state legislature approves, the name change would then be sent back to the Lake City Council for ratification.
Developers have said the project can only proceed if the name change is approved, according to WYSH Radio in Clinton. They have cited the marketing possibilities of the name “Rocky Top, Tennessee.”
Thursday’s trademark and copyright infringement warning came from an attorney representing House of Bryant Publications LLC. That Gatlinburg company said it owns multiple Rocky Top trademarks and the copyright to the song “Rocky Top,” a bluegrass tune that was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in 1967 and is now a state song and unofficial anthem for the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
The legal letter from attorney Gary L. Montle of Nashville law firm Waddey Patterson said the renaming of the town and location of a theme park in the city would entail other branding and marketing efforts that would violate the Rocky Top trademarks and include “unlicensed derivative works” from the copyrighted song.
“House of Bryant considers all of these efforts to be gross violations of its federal trademarks and copyrights,” Montle said. “If the city council approves plans to change Lake City’s name or build a theme park with the name ‘Rocky Top,’ or a variation of that name, House of Bryant will act swiftly and aggressively to protect its intellectual property rights by all legal means available, including seeking a declaration of our rights in federal court.”
He asked Sharp to assure, within seven days, that Lake City will end all plans to name or associate a theme park with “Rocky Top” and assure that the city council will renounce all support for renaming this town of about 1,800 tucked between Appalachian foothills and Interstate 75 in northern Anderson County.
Sharp said the theme park’s investors should meet with legal counsel to discuss the copyright issue, and in order to protect itself, the city will have to meet with attorneys as well. He also recommended a meeting with House of Bryant and suggested that a deal could be worked out that would pay that company a percentage of the sales of any Rocky Top-themed merchandise sold in the Lake City development
There have been reports that the first phase of the project could cost $20 million. Sharp said ground could be broken about 18 months after the name change, so the theme park might not be completed for a few years. There are several possible locations, including a 17-acre parcel owned by the city.
Most residents at Thursday’s council meeting seemed to support the name change, Lake City’s second since 1939, when it was renamed from Coal Creek—three years after the nearby Norris Dam was built. They said the theme park would add jobs, increase tax revenues, and boost economic development and growth, helping the school system, housing, and young adults looking for work, among other things.
“I’m tickled to death,” said Gary Mullins, who left Lake City as a young man but is now retired and has returned. “When I was here, there was no part-time jobs.”
Anderson County Commissioner Tim Isbel said more than 500 people turned out for a bean and cornbread social and informational meeting on the theme park last week, and they sang “Rocky Top.”
“This is a breakthrough for Lake City and Anderson County,” said Isbel, who is also board chair for Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing.
Voting to recommend the rechristening to the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville on Thursday were Sharp and council members Andrew J. Howard, Donald Douglas, and Shain Vowell.
“We have so much to look forward to,” Sharp said.
Vice Mayor Michael J. Lovely abstained because he’s been asked to serve on the board of Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing. Although he hasn’t committed to serve, Lovely wanted to avoid any conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest.
Not everyone supported the name change, though. The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation has dreamed of changing Lake City’s name back to Coal Creek, a move that had been supported by former Mayor Buck Wilson.
“We hoped the city would embrace its history, its roots,” foundation director Barry Thacker said. But, he added, “We didn’t push it on anybody.”
Louise Nelson is the granddaughter of David Dezern, who was killed along with four brothers in the Fraterville Mine Explosion near Lake City in 1902. She said she would prefer that the city be called Coal Creek again.
“This is a historic town,” Nelson said. “My heritage is important to me. This breaks my heart.”
The Rocky Top project was first envisioned by Knoxville businessman Buddy Warren, but he was seriously injured in a recent car accident and Knoxville artist Brad Coriell has taken the lead. Developers have said they are prepared to proceed, having already retained an attorney and an architect, pending the approval of the name change, according to WYSH Radio.
Officials said that, even without the development, the city could still see some benefit from simply changing its name because several businesses have expressed interest in moving here if Lake City becomes Rocky Top.
Note: This story was last updated at 10:35 a.m. Nov. 8.